Trishaws are as much a part of George Town’s heritage as hawker food, even if their numbers have diminished radically.
Trishaws were once the main mode of transportation in George Town, found in quiet streets and on the busiest roads. Known locally as beca (or beychia in Hokkien), they used to play a major role in the lives of Penangites – from sending children to school, to ferrying entire families to dinner.
Now that cars and motorcycles are plentiful, residents in George Town rarely depend on the trishaw anymore. Today, the trusty trishaw largely exists as a tourism icon.
A History of the Trishaw
Before the trishaw, the jinrickshaw was a common sight on the streets of George Town. A jinrickshaw is a two-wheeled vehicle pulled from the front, with passengers seated at the back. It was known as lanca in Malay – (or langchia in Hokkien, meaning “human-powered vehicle”).
There is no consensus on the origin of the jinrickshaw; it either originated in Japan or was a Western invention. Regardless, it became a popular mode of transportation in East Asia, with its use eventually spreading to South-East Asia.
In Penang, the jinrickshaw can be traced back to the 1880s, when it was introduced to the island by Chinese migrants. The Penang jinrickshaw took its design from Japan, and was a popular mode of transportation, particularly among Chinese tradesmen.
The number of jinrickshaws in Penang reached its peak in 1903 with 3,696 on the road. They decreased in number after, with a sharp drop from 2,121 in 1940 to just 613 in 1946, likely due to the Second World War. What is known is that after the war, the jinrickshaw began to be replaced by the trishaw in Penang.
The three-wheeled, pedal-powered trishaw may be regarded as an improvement on the jinrickshaw. This hybrid, first appearing in 1941, was a cross between a tricycle and a rickshaw, and no longer needed to be pulled by one person. In Penang, the trishaw is pedalled from the back with passengers seated in the front, allowed them a 180-degree view ahead.
Trishaws increased in number from 1,523 in 1946 to 2,397 in 1967, while jinrickshaws decreased to just one by 1967, disappearing completely from records the year after.The late 1960s and early 1970s were the golden years of trishaws in Penang, when more than 2,500 of them plied the streets. The slow decrease in their numbers was hastened by the Asian Financial Crisis, dropping from 1,722 in 1995 to just 354 in 1999. It is estimated that there are only around 200 trishaw pedallers remaining in George Town today.
Trishaws lined up along Jalan Penang.
To understand public perception of trishaws, Penang Institute’s Department of Urban Studies surveyed 249 members of the public – both Malaysians (79%) and foreigners (21%) – in George Town.
Only 17% had ever used a trishaw in George Town. The main reasons respondents gave for using a trishaw, whether recently or in the past, were for the enjoyment (19%), to meet friends and relatives (19%), for the experience (11%), to commute to school (8%) and to go to the market (5%). Alarmingly, many had not used trishaws in the past three years.
Most of the respondents (83%) had never used a trishaw before, with 42% of these being Malaysians. Many (71%) have not even considered using a trishaw in George Town, and preferred walking (18%). In addition, 15% believed that it is not necessary to use a trishaw, 10% were dissuaded from doing so since they would be exposed to the hot weather, and 9% preferred to use their personal vehicles.These results show that the trishaw is no longer a popular mode of transportation among locals and even among foreigners, with many choosing to go on foot when exploring George Town.
The Stats on Trishaws
To understand the daily life of trishaw pedallers and the challenges they face, a survey was conducted with 112 trishaw riders in George Town to develop recommendations for sustaining the industry.
Trishaws on Lebuh Armenian.
The average age of the surveyed trishaw pedallers is 60. Almost 90% of them are aged 50 and above, and the average length of time they had worked as pedallers is 22 years.
Most trishaws in Penang are typically found within the World Heritage Site. Visibly, a fleet of them can be seen close to Cititel Hotel on Jalan Penang – a strategic location, since it connects Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah to the Esplanade,
directly faces the guesthouses on Lebuh Muntri, and joins Lebuh Chulia to the bars and cafés in the south. About 30% of trishaw riders in Penang choose to base themselves here.Another strategic trishaw base is near Lebuh Armenian, with around one sixth of trishaw pedallers operating from here. After all, many tourist attractions are found along the street, such as the Sun Yat Sen Museum, Yap Kongsi, Hock Teik Cheng Sin Temple, Khoo Kongsi, as well as the street art and street performances on weekends.
Trishaw riders do not earn much, despite the fact that more than four fifths of their passengers are foreign tourists. Passengers have also recently been diverted to alternative modes of transportation, such as tandem bicycles and four-seater bicycles. This makes the bicycle rental business the trishaw industry’s top competitor.In order to compete, pedallers have taken to decorating their trishaws with quirky decorations, such as cute dolls, or putting up signage indicating the language spoken as well as the pedaller’s contact number.
Forty per cent of surveyed trishaw pedallers reported earning RM900 and below each month, which is actually below the poverty line, while 96% of them earn less than RM1,500 per month. As many as 70% do not even own their trishaws, paying an average rental fee of RM71 per month.
More than half the trishaw pedallers are homeless. They spend their nights on five-foot ways. Possessing no property and unable to rent a room, they depend completely on their trishaw – from earning an income, to using it to hang their clothes and belongings, and as a place to rest.
Figure 1: Numbers of Jinrickshaws and Trishaws in Penang from 1895 to 20155
V. Thilagavathi Gunalan. (2007). Daripada Lanca Kepada Beca: Sejarah Pengangkutan di Pulau Pinang. In Sohaimi Abdul Aziz (Ed.), Dari Tanjung Penaga ke George Town: Membongkar Sejarah Negeri Pulau Pinang (pp. 213 & 217). Kuala Lumpur: Kementerian Kebudayaan, Kesenian, dan Warisan Malaysia.
Annual Reports from Penang Island Municipal Council.
Almost all the pedallers surveyed said they had no plans to retire, while some believe that their business would pick up if tourism improved. In line with this, the Penang Institute launched a “Back to Beca” project to come up with proposals for helping the industry. It is hoped that through this initiative, these once ubiquitous symbols of George Town – reminders of a simpler past – will have a future.
Figure 2: Age Distribution of Surveyed Trishaw Pedallers
- “List of Loanwords in Malay,” World Heritage Encyclopaedia, accessed November 10, 2016, http://www.worldheritage.org/article/ WHEBN0021570831/List%20of%20loanwords%20 in%20Malay
- V. Thilagavathi Gunalan, “Daripada Lanca Kepada Beca: Sejarah Pengangkutan di Pulau Pinang,” in Dari Tanjung Penaga ke George Town: Membongkar Sejarah Negeri Pulau Pinang, ed. Sohaimi Abdul Aziz, (Kuala Lumpur: Kementerian Kebudayaan, Kesenian, dan Warisan Malaysia, 2007), 205-6.
- City Council of George Town, Penang Past and Present: 1786–1963 (Penang: The City Council of George Town, 1966).
- Sofiah Hashim, “Transport in Penang: A Brief History,” in Malaysia in History 21:2 (1978): 38.
- V. Thilagavathi, “Daripada Lanca Kepada Beca: Sejarah Pengangkutan di Pulau Pinang.” Note: The exact number of jinrickshaws before 1895 is difficult to track.
- The poverty line income (PLI) is set at RM930 for Peninsular Malaysia, RM1,170 for Sabah, and RM990 for Sarawak. See Economic Planning Unit, Eleventh Malaysia Plan 2016-2020: Anchoring Growth on People (Kuala Lumpur: Prime Minister’s Department, 2015), 4-7.
Tan Lii Inn graduated with a Master’s Degree from Korea University. He is currently an analyst at Penang Institute.